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Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen (thoughts)

January 9, 2013

Identity and Violence
If I could, I would make Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen required reading across the globe: it’s that important. I would also give it a new title, since it’s so much broader than the current one implies. Perhaps A Reminder of the Humanity of Us All? The nine essays are based on lectures he gave and range from dismantling the ‘clash of civilizations’ argument to a penetrating look at globalization and the debates around it to meditations on multiculturalism to a historic rebuttal of the defining of concepts such as science, democracy, and the rights of the individual as Western. Throughout, Sen brings a smart, caring, progressive approach to the topics and by the end I think he’s succeeded in “resisting the miniaturisation of human beings.”

While Sen is clearly a scholar, the book is aimed at a general audience, and I don’t think you need any background in the issues he discusses in order to appreciate it. He also weaves specific examples and personal stories into his general arguments, which makes his writing style quite compelling. In other words, I promise this will be interesting and intelligible reading no matter who you are!

He does something else that surprised me with its impact: he uses ‘she’ just as often, probably more often, as a generic pronoun. Since much of the time Sen is arguing that each individual is part of many groups at once and to reduce them down to one label is a travesty, he tosses off imaginary examples. And frequently these imaginary examples are women. I hadn’t realised I was affected by the way that nonfiction uses male as generic, until I found myself smiling and engaging due to Sen’s decision not to do so. It’s a little thing, in a book that doesn’t touch on gender issues, but it endeared him to me.

Luckily for me and others who love a smart, thoughtful, non-divisive discussion of global issues that affect us all, Amartya Sen has quite a back list of books to his name. Oh, and a Nobel prize. ;) I will definitely be exploring more of his work and soon!

I should also mention that Identity and Violence is part of a series by Norton called Issues of Our Time. Edited by the distinguished Henry Louis Gates Jr, he describes its goal as:

Law, justice, identity, morality and freedom: concepts such as these are at once abstract and utterly close to home. Our understanding of them helps define who we are and who we hope to be; we are made by what we make of them. These are books, accordingly, that invite the reader to reexamine hand-me-down assumptions and to grapple with powerful trends.

I’ve only read one other of the titles (Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism) but will be seeking out more in the future. Although, I have to admit my disappointment that the current seven published books are all by men and of the seven upcoming authors listed only one is a woman.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • A Human Being Died that Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela: Gobogo-Madikizela is, among other things, a black South African journalist. During her coverage of the Truth & Reconciliation Committee, as she conducts multiple interviews with Eugene de Kock, an Afrikaner counter-insurgency commander now jailed. This book, one of the most powerful I’ve ever read, explores the tension between those identities and the people who inhabit them. I think it’s a powerful case study of Sen’s theories in action.
  • Train to Pakistan by Kushant Singh: Sen references Hindu/Muslim violence on the subcontinent a few times, and this novel takes place during the height of the Partition in a border village. The characters all struggle with whether to be caught up in the identity warfare going on around them.
  • Days of Death, Days of Life by Kristin Norget : in this book about anthropologist Norget’s time living in Oaxaca, she consistently challenges taking a broad, stereotypical view of Oaxacans and instead looks at the real details of their individual lives.
  • Deep Economy or Hope, Human and Wild by Bill McKibben: both of these explore alternatives to the neoliberal, ‘market fixes everything’ dominant discourse about globalisation. As such, I think they’d compliment the essay in which Sen looks at ‘anti-globalisation’ protests and explores the real issues at stake.
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9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2013 9:33 am

    I keep meaning to read some Amartya Sen. There’s a copy of The Idea of Justice sitting on the bookshelf.

    I too really appreciate it when authors make an effort to vary their use of gender.

  2. January 9, 2013 11:13 am

    Thanks for an informative review of what sound like an important book that discusses some ideas I care about. Interesting overlap with some of what Vandana Shiva said in Making Peace with Earth which I just read and reviewed. And I liked your and his attention to gender in a book that doesn’t focus on it. As Shiva says, and probably Sen and Mohanty would agree, it is not as if we can pick this issue or that; they are all inter-related.

    • January 11, 2013 8:47 am

      I think Sen would definitely agree. And isn’t the overlap neat? I think you’d like this one, even if you didn’t learn a lot of new stuff from it.

  3. January 9, 2013 11:39 am

    Oh Eva, this sounds marvelous! I’ve heard of Sen before and have been wondering about his work so perhaps this might be the one to start with!

  4. January 9, 2013 12:53 pm

    I have to admit that I was somewhat clueless as what to expect when I saw the title of this book…I think I like your title better. ;) But no matter what it’s called, I most definitely would like to read it!

  5. January 9, 2013 10:38 pm

    This sounds very interesting! And I just noticed that it’s been translated into Finnish already a few years ago and that we have a copy in our library’s collection!

  6. boardinginmyforties permalink
    January 15, 2013 4:06 pm

    This one is definitely a must read for me and I want my son to read it too. Thanks for making me aware of this one Eva…kind of sad that I wasn’t before now.

  7. February 1, 2013 8:19 pm

    Wow! This sounds like a heavy read, but a very good one.

  8. March 9, 2014 12:49 am

    Very good book. I would also make every single person on Earth read it – then, may be, we all would have more smiles and less tears.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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